The Encyclical Letter VI Humanae vitae of Paul VI and the Social Doctrine of the Church met with the same opposition.  We are talking about the end of the 1960’s and the early 1970’s. This fact of sharing the destiny of being the object of opposition during those years (as well as afterwards and even at present, since the fundamental issues have not changed) is of great interest in order to understand not only the relationship between Humanae vitae and the Social Doctrine of the Church, but also consider the common framework of thought that was challenged. On the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s encyclical it is good for this theme not to go unnoticed.

As we know, opposition within the Church against Humanae vitae was rather harsh, and this had a profound impact on Paul VI, causing him no little suffering, also because he was abandoned by many cardinals and bishops who had been close to him before and after the Council.  The two progressive wings were evidently different in their basic intentions, but did converge at certain points along the road. A recently published book offering documentary traces of Karol Wojtyla’s contribution to Humanae vitae indirectly recalls the episcopates that had mounted the greatest opposition [GALUSZKA, Pawel Stanislaw, Karol Wojtyla e Humanae vitae. Il contributo dell’Arcivescovo di Cracovia e del gruppo di teologi polacchi all’enciclica di Paolo VI, Cantagalli, Siena 2017]. Augusto Del Noce said it had been the greatest modern “Kulturkampf” against the Catholic Church, and that Paul VI had held out against it most tenaciously.

During those same years, however, opposition began to mount against the Social Doctrine of the Church.  The book by Rev. Dominique Che nu, “The Social Doctrine of the Church (Queriniana, Brescia 1977) became this opposition movement’s canonical text (see pgs. 48-53). The basis of this denunciation included: the interpretation of the Council in the sense of the School of Bologna, the turning point of theology from nature to history, and the idea that with Octogesima adveniens, Paul VI had wanted to downsize the Social Doctrine of the Church by willingly publishing a social document of lesser standing than an encyclical. The main reason, however, was the change in the paradigm of the relationship between the Church and the world, with the substantial acceptance of the “anthropological turning point” and a world that had become “mature”. During those years, Catholic publishers came out with a landslide of texts – a real theological bomb – that contradicted the theological framework of the Social Doctrine of the Church at its selfsame roots. This was also a feature of 1968, and the “socialist option” embraced by the ACLI (Catholic Association of Catholic Workers) in 1970 somehow became the principal hallmark in Italy, just like the Conference of the Latin American Bishops (CELAM) in Medellin, Colombia, became so for the Church at large.

The concentric opposition mounted against Humanae vitae and the Social Doctrine of the Church also continued after that. The pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI responded to this movement by highlighting anew, ever in unison, both matrimonial morality and the Social Doctrine of the Church. This, however, was not enough to defeat the theological and ecclesial schools of thought contrary to both one and the other, and they actually became stronger in the meantime.

This unity of the destiny of Humanae vitae and the Social Doctrine of the Church deserves utmost attention. It seems they stand or fall together, and this is the case to all intents and purposes. The first reason, as recently stated, is that contained in the conjugal union is the seed of any other social relationship. Therefore, if that union is transformed from natural to contractual, enormous indeed is the negative impact on the entire order of society. The second reason is even more profound. Humanae vitae and the Social Doctrine of the Church share a framework of philosophical and theological thought that serves as their foundation. This framework of thought had been set forth by Leo XIII in the series of encyclicals in conjunction with Rerum novarum, and was then reiterated by John Paul II in the three fundamental encyclicals Evangelium vitae, Veritatis splendor and Fides et ratio. We can use the words of Humanae vitae to express this: “No member of the faithful could possibly deny that the Church is competent in her Magisterium to interpret the natural moral law. It is in fact indisputable, as Our predecessors have many times declared,  that Jesus Christ, when He communicated His divine power to Peter and the other Apostles and sent them to teach all nations His commandments, constituted them as the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law. For the natural law, too, declares the will of God, and its faithful observance is necessary for men’s eternal salvation”. (n. 4).

Those who have contested, and continue to contest, both Humanae vitae and the Social Doctrine of the Church essentially contest this framework of thought based on the relationship between nature and supernatural, between reason and faith, between natural moral law and divine law, a relationship in which the second term purifies the first term, but never denies it.

Stefano Fontana

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Stefano Fontana

Direttore dell'Osservatorio Card. Van Thuận